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Violence Against Georgia’s Protesters

(GEORGIA / BLANKSPOT) During the day, they are assaulted by riot police, and at night, by volunteer martial artists with connections to far-right parties. Meet the battered individuals who pay with their health to keep the protests alive.

The air was heavy with tension, and darkness had just begun to settle over the streets of Tbilisi as Nikolas Butkhuzi walked home after a long day of intense protests against Georgia’s new ”agent law.” Suddenly, the sound of tires screeching against the asphalt pierced the night. A black car drove straight into the crowd and hit a cyclist.

It was as if time stood still when the doors opened, and three men rushed out and began blindly attacking people. Nikolas tried to turn back, but it was too late. One of the men, with an athletic build, took a quick step forward and swung at him. The pain was immediate and overwhelming. The blow struck Nikolas directly on the jaw, and everything went black.

When Nikolas finally came to, he heard a cacophony of screams and the dull sounds of blows. His body refused to obey him; every attempt to move was met with paralyzing pain.

He lay there, helpless, as the men continued their violent assault on the surrounding protesters.

Screenshot of Nikolas Butchudzi from the evening he was beaten.

Violence in connection with protests in Georgia is nothing new. During Tbilisi Pride in 2021, more than fifty journalists were attacked, one of whom, a cameraman, was killed by violent extremists. When the Georgian government attempted to introduce the ”agent law” as early as March last year, they were met with significant police violence.

But now, more and more testimonies from the streets describe volunteer groups instilling fear among the demonstrators. Shortly after the attack on Nikolas Butkhuzi, it was revealed that the three men, all martial artists and kickboxers, had set out to assault demonstrators. Journalist Mariam Gaprindashvili managed to trace their workplaces and sports clubs.

Colloquially, they are called ”titushkis.” The word comes from the Ukrainian security service’s special forces during the Maidan Revolution from 2013 to 2014. Then, as now, titushkis spread fear among demonstrators by beating them and pursuing them.

Denne artikkelen ble først publisert på Blankspot.se og gjengitt i Transit Magasin under Creative Commons-lisens BY-NC-ND 2.5 SE. Artikkelen er oversatt fra svensk til norsk av Terje Karlsen. Støtt opp om et leserfinansiert Blankspot: Donér månedlig eller et engangsbeløp, slik at Blankspot kan fortsette å rapportere.

Much evidence also suggests that they are part of a larger network of violent extremists that have appeared on several occasions in connection with anti-government demonstrations in recent years.

Titushkis’ methods differ from police violence and also include harassment. While men have faced outright violence, other methods have been directed at women. Stairwells have been plastered with posters depicting them with captions saying they are ”enemies of the church” or ”bought agents.” Many have also received threatening phone calls from anonymous numbers originating from countries like Azerbaijan, the Philippines, or Haiti. These calls have also targeted their families.

This method is well-known in an authoritarian post-Soviet context. In Belarus, similar harassment occurs systematically, and likewise in Azerbaijan. In Russia, persecution has increased over the past decades to the extent that hundreds of thousands of dissidents have felt compelled to leave the country.

In Georgian political discourse, LGBTQ issues have become a lever to spark debate. Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling party Georgian Dream, said in an unusual speech in April that the agent law is partly aimed at Western-funded organizations that go against traditional Georgian values, specifically pointing out LGBTQ people.

The Main Cathedral in Tbilisi.

For weeks, protests have taken over the streets and squares in the central parts of Tbilisi, but on May 17, everyone stays home. The reason is that the Georgian government has decided to celebrate ”Pure Families Day.” This day was introduced a few years ago as a reaction against LGBTQ activists protesting against the church.

The persistent protest movement has understood the message to stay home. One person we spoke to said, ”Protesting on this day only leads to unnecessary confrontation.” Instead of EU flags, it is now Georgian flags that dominate the streets along with religious messages.

A participant says he has come to take part for the sake of the church and does not see it as a political stance. Another admits that the presence of the government and far-right parties can make it seem political, but it is about standing up for Georgian culture.

Bells ring as tens of thousands of people slowly walk through the city and up to Tbilisi’s cathedral. The atmosphere is light-hearted, and some women sing traditional church songs. Several families join in.

”We must be wary of the EU Parliament’s propaganda,” says one of the speakers.

It is unclear whether the speaker is referring to the agent law or the importance of introducing a strict LGBTQ law in the country. Such a law is indeed being prepared, with its primary goal being to stifle all ”public activity” among LGBTQ people. A similar law was introduced in Russia in 2012.

”May 17, Family Day”, says the poster.

Three men in their thirties listen to the speech and nod approvingly. In English, they explain that it is about preserving Georgia and its culture.

”A few years ago, LGBTQ people took to the streets here in Tbilisi. We were there to beat them. We beat them and beat them until they ran home,” says one of the men.

He continues to say that if the critical protest movement comes out tonight, he will kill them.

”Tonight, if any LGBTQ people come to Rustaveli (in front of the parliament), we will kill them. I promise. We will kill them. This is our day.”

One of the organizations present at the church gathering is Alt-Info. It is a conservative and sometimes violent party that, until recently, had the acceptance of the Georgian government.

In recent years, the EU- and US-funded organization Democracy Research Institute has released several reports on the seemingly artificial growth of Alt-Info. In just a few years, Alt-Info has opened up to sixty offices across the country, while their revenue cannot possibly cover the costs of this expansion.

In addition to Alt-Info, the reports also discuss other violent groups. At the center of their rhetoric is criticism of LGBTQ people and advocacy for closer ties with Russia. They are also critical of the West. The report’s author notes that the violent groups are characterized by ”systematic and high discipline.”

Ucha Nanuashvili outside his office. Titushkis have come there and sprayed hateful messages on the walls. Ucha Nanuashvili was formerly the ”Ombudsman for Human Rights,” a government role meant to monitor human rights issues.

”Simplified, there are three types of titushkis. The first are sportspeople, the second are those with connections to criminal networks, and the third is a combination of the first two that cooperate with the police,” says Ucha Nanuashvili, founder of the Democracy Research Institute.

According to him, they are used on different occasions and fulfill different functions.

”The first category seems to be connected to a network around Kacha Kaladze, Tbilisi’s mayor. He is a former professional footballer and has strong connections in the sports world. They have historically used violence. The criminal gangs, however, are the most prominent right now, it seems. They cooperate with Russian-Georgian networks,” reasons Ucha Nanuashvili.

He believes that the function of the violent groups is to create fear.

”They have been used by Georgian Dream for many years. We saw it first before the parliamentary election in 2016, then in 2020, and now at major demonstrations. Their goal is to instill fear,” says Ucha Nanuashvili.

Guram Adamia has not recovered from the police violence yet.

It’s only been two days since he was beaten black and blue by the police when we meet another victim of the violence, Guram Adamia, in his home. His eye is still swollen and bloodshot. Unlike the violence from the titushkis, police violence occurs with the approval of the rule of law.

”I saw a girl, maybe a child, who seemed like she couldn’t get away from the police when they came. So I stood in between, mostly to help her. And suddenly I was surrounded by many of them. It was one of those moments when you realize the situation is hopeless,” says Guram Adamia.

On May 14, people fled from the police as they marched in front of the parliament. Guram Adamia was one of those caught in between.
Guram Adamia illustrates how the police operate in three tiers. The first comprises regular officers, the second special forces, and the third criminal investigators.

He was participating in the demonstrations on May 14, when the bill was to go through its third and final vote in parliament. The police had prepared. The vote took place in the afternoon, and the demonstration had not yet grown large as many were still at work. This meant that the police had the physical upper hand when they arrived in hundreds, possibly thousands.

”The thing is, the police in the first line just pull you in. In the second line come the special forces, and that’s where the violence, or I would rather call it torture, happens. People lay around me and could do nothing but endure the ruthless excessive force. If it weren’t for the third line, where the criminal police wait, they would have beaten you to death,” recounts Guram Adamia.

He was beaten so badly that he had to spend a day in the intensive care unit. The others who were pulled in seem to have met the same fate. Despite this, he says he will continue to demonstrate.

”I had a political and perhaps intellectual awakening a few years ago where I understand the value of the struggle. Will I continue to engage? The answer to that is obvious,” says Guram Adamia.

It’s been a couple of weeks since Nikolas Butkhuzi was knocked unconscious. He still has a concussion.

At home, Nikolas Butkhuzi’s dog, Luffy, whines softly on the other side of the kitchen table.

”She’s not as dangerous as she looks. In fact, she’s a real sweetheart,” he says in passing as he continues his story.

It turned out that those who assaulted him were from a local martial arts club and had their venue shut down because of the protests. He has tried to return to the demonstrations, but each time the ground sways and his temples throb.

”Even though it’s been several weeks since the incident, I’m still having problems with the concussion. So now I stay home,” says Nikolas Butkhuzi.

Denne artikkelen ble først publisert på Blankspot.se og gjengitt i Transit Magasin under Creative Commons-lisens BY-NC-ND 2.5 SE. Artikkelen er oversatt fra svensk til norsk av Terje Karlsen. Støtt opp om et leserfinansiert Blankspot: Donér månedlig eller et engangsbeløp, slik at Blankspot kan fortsette å rapportere.

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Rasmus Canbäck
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Rasmus Canbäck er frilansjournalist som jobber for det svenske reportasjemagasinet Blankspot.

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